Fr A.C. Fabian, OP was a living legend. He was a Dominican priest that taught philosophy at St Mary’s University in Winona, MN for nearly 50 years, and was one of the largest influences on my intellectual life. I call this blog “borrowed lore,” and he is one of those people that most clearly embody that “ancient wisdom” in my life. Much of what I try to hand on has an origin in his teaching! He passed away on Friday (7-14-17), and I’d like to take today’s post to share a little more about him.
Fr Fabian taught a whole generation of priests, seminarians, and other students. He passed away at the age of 90, and had only been fully retired for about four years! Anyone who has taken a class of his has probably attempted to imitate his deep, unhurried voice and clever wit. Once he asked a classmate of mine how he was doing, who then responded, “I’m having trouble existing.” Fr Fabian responded with a calm, “Well, just keep trying,” and continued on his way. Another time I tried to make a joke to him in Latin, and he got me back by just continuing the rest of the conversation in Latin as if he spoke it every day. If a student seemed to be getting over-confident in class or was setting themselves up for a fall, he’d say, “Be careful; the half-time hero can be the end of the game zero!” Or, his famous, “You’re up a creek without a logical paddle!” His wit was never caustic, but with a respect and great affection for his students. I always appreciated that during tests he would bring out his rosary and quietly pray for us while we worked. He was a man that had completely dedicated his life to Christ and the ministry of education.
Perhaps the most “legendary” thing about Fr Fabian was his memory. He always began the first class of the semester by taking roll call from memory. In my classes he never missed a student’s name (keep in mind, he was about 80 at the time!). Occasionally he’d ask what letter we wanted him to start with, or if we wanted him to do it backwards. He would repeat the name and match it to the student’s face. After that he never had to take roll again—he had a method of mentally pairing students with a “light bulb,” and then scanning the class and “turning off the lights” next to the students he saw. He then could quickly tell you who was absent by checking to see which lights were still on in his mind. If you skipped a class you would get a call on your room phone from him: “There’s a light still on in my brain- I’m going to charge you for electricity! Come see me.” Over the summers he would take up a memorization project. The summer I was there he memorized all of the collective nouns (e.g. a “gaggle of geese,” or a “murder of crows”).
His little aphorisms were another famous part of his classes. He would repeat them often… in every class. This drove some people crazy. But, as he liked to say, there was a method to his madness. It instilled general principles that I still remember. Some were highly philosophical (“Potency is to act, as essence is to existence, as matter is to form,” or his drawing of the “real worlds of external and internal being”), while others were general guidance for life (“Good, better, best, never let it rest, until the good becomes better, and the better becomes best”). This last saying was probably his favorite, and had an extended form: “Why? Because the human heart and the human mind were made for the best, and will never truly be at rest, until they get the best. So hitch your wagon to a star and aim high.” He practiced what he preached and was a living witness to a humble, unfailing dedication to daily conversion.
Last, I want to just share a few of his other influences on me. My first class with him was Logic, and he was a master of disciplined thinking. He spoke often about the importance of good reasoning and understanding the meaning of terms as they were being used by your interlocutor—a lot of trouble comes from people using the same terms with different meanings (“Language is marvelous but gets us in trouble, too”)! He believed that there was generally *something* true in whatever someone said (“who could fail to hit the broadside of a barn?”), and your response should be charitable by making proper distinctions (“never disagree outright, seldom affirm outright, but always under a distinction”). He constantly warned of logical fallacies as destructive of true conversation. Some of his regulars: false analogy (“because they are similar in some respects, you conclude they are similar in all respects”), the straw man (misrepresenting someone’s position: “I never said that…”), and- a favorite word of his to pronounce- amphiboly (a statement that could be taken in two ways. E.g. what “greasy” refers to in the phrase “Don’t put your hand on the door knob- it’s greasy”). He helped me to develop a love for philosophy and St Thomas Aquinas, made me a much clearer thinker, helped me to become more charitable and fair in arguments, and prepared me to be a much better priest than I would have been otherwise.
Thank you, Fr Fabian. May your soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.